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In this photo, people walk by chain stores Banana Republic and H&M on Regent Street in London, Friday, Sept. 3, 2010. (AP Photo/Sang Tan)

At a time when fashion trends come and go before you can even buy into them, a very important element of retail consumption has seemingly disappeared: quality.

I remember when the word “quality” was only used if a company could prove that the product had features superior to the competitors. Now the word is used for products as mundane and as commonplace as toilet tissue.

In the last century there has been a major shift in retailing. The “more is more” mentality has permeated in an age of constant consumption. Instant gratification and disposability dominates the way we buy clothes.

Big retailers are banking on the fact that consumers will purchase more frequently if the items are, well, cheap.

In 2009, according to the The Guardian, U.S. consumers spent 2.98 percent of their income on clothing. This is down from 4.78 percent in 1988, and 9 percent in 1950. But don’t let the percentages fool you. It’s not that consumers are buying fewer items (in fact they are buying more): It’s that the items are getting less expensive.

There are a few opportunities to get real bargains, but for the most part, big retailers are banking on the fact that consumers will purchase more frequently if the items are, well, cheap.

Take for example the game-changing Spanish retail chain Zara. According to an August 2011 article from the sustainable fashion design website Ecouterre, the life cycle of a Zara garment is about two weeks. In just 14 days, Zara can design, produce, deliver, display and sell a piece of clothing. It used to be that a retailer could expect four visits a year from a loyal customer; with its revolutionary business model, Zara moved that needle to 17 visits.

Millennials that have grown up with instant and replaceable clothing have never known how to truly appreciate quality. They haven’t been conditioned to wait for things they want, because “things” have always been so accessible.

The art of planning and building a wardrobe is no longer passed on from one generation to the other. Somewhere along the line, as our media-hungry culture became more and more reliant on what – and who – everyone else was wearing, individual style was compromised. Clothing has become more about dressing for the moment and less about investing in pieces that have a long life.

We regularly hear people say, “I love my car,” or “I’d be lost without my computer,” but rarely do you hear, “I’ve owned this dress for five years and I still love the way it looks.” For me, this loss of product appreciation is like the loss of one of the five senses.

In just 14 days, Zara can design, produce, deliver, display and sell a piece of clothing.

With the onset of e-commerce, something tangible like fashion is brought down to a two-dimensional experience.

Forget fit for a moment, how about the tactile experience? The way a piece of clothing feels to the touch — on your skin? There’s snuggly like a petroleum-based polar fleece and then there’s snuggly like 12-ply, hand-knit cashmere. Yes, the prices are going to be very different, but the experience is worlds apart.

If it feels like we are constantly being manipulated by retailers, we are. However, we can fight back by exercising our right to appreciate. We can elevate our awareness of how things are made or the many steps it takes to create a particular fabric. We can consider why so few of an item might be made and how that results in more individuality. This is the essence of how I run my business.

One may argue – and many do – that my price points are too high. They are high. But not arbitrarily so. Prices are set to reflect the time, craftsmanship and technical skill behind the clothing. It stands to reason — to me — that a handmade suit crafted by expert tailors costs significantly more than a machine-made suit made on an assembly line.

Most importantly, we need to shift away from the “need-to-have-it-right-now” mentality that drives this ongoing frenzy of consumption. The act of getting and then keeping clothing you love, need and appreciate is infinitely more satisfying.

So, reevaluate the items hanging in your wardrobe. Invest in pieces that will be with you for longer than a season. Rediscover the gratification you get from wearing an item you love time and time again. Remember the art of appreciation.

Tags: Style

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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  • http://twitter.com/keytothearmoire A Key to the Armoire

    I always find the reality of that article SO sad! Precisely the opposite of what I try to convey in my own blog…www.akeytothearmoire.com

  • robert240

    Quality is one thing, but overpriced, incredibly expensive designer duds are another. $1000 for a sweater? $400 jeans? No wonder folks flock to Zara, H & M, Topshop and the like.

  • http://www.facebook.com/matthewgaustin Matthew Austin

    Quality in “fashion” has given way to mediocrity in “fadshion”. But if we didn’t have quick turn consumption, then China, as the primary manufacturer of low cost, cheaper goods, would not be able to generate the GDP to bankroll the ballooning US debt!

  • http://www.facebook.com/matthewgaustin Matthew Austin

    Quality in “fashion” has given way to mediocrity in “fadshion”. The profusion of low cost, cheap goods has been the engine of China’s growth….and without their stellar GDP performance over the last decade or so fueled by insatiable Western consumption, who else would have bankrolled the ballooning US debt?

  • http://profiles.google.com/phyllis.craine Phyllis Craine

    What I miss are mid range, well made clothing brands that existed even in the early 90’s. All of that has disappeared and all we are left with is Stella McCartney at Barney’s and Stella McCartney at H&M with nothing in between.

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  • vito33

    You know who’s a genius? The advertising guy who came up with the idea for clothing companies to emblazon their name across the front of their shirts and sweaters. “Aeropostale”, “Tommy”, etc. I think Izod is doing it too. The little alligator wasn’t good enough!

    People are spending money for their clothes and then walking around as an unpaid billboard for the company.

    I’m going to start writing these companies and tell them that I’ll buy their shirt if they’ll agree to send me $20.00 every time I wear it in public. Whaddya think?

  • http://profiles.google.com/shava23 Shava Nerad

    This was an area of professional focus for me about 13 years ago — I was VP/Marketing & BizDev for an ecommerce company that did fashion in entertainment licensed fashion. So, think anything from a movie, tv, manga/anime or cartoon t-shirt to a reproduction gown from Sex and the City or a gala award event or a movie set — or an amazing leather jacket from an action movie.

    For entertainment licensing the production cycles are baroque because of fickle demand and legal issues. I could write a book! Maybe I should (but people would KILL me! Especially maybe my old clients at The Sopranos at HBO, eh? :).

    But part of my own family history is in a completely different world. Two generations back, my grandfather, born in 1882, was a master tailor born in Krakow, who did his master tailor work in London, where he was pub buddies with mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell. He (among many!) made uniforms for George’s coronation. He came to the US between the wars, and moved to LA to do costumes for Hollywood in the 20s, and had ambitions to write movie scripts — I inherited a filebox of his attempts and he should have stuck to the needle. However, the craft of the master tailor is basically lost today.

    My grandmother, his wife, was a dressmaker, as was my mother, and as my mom says, I cut my teeth on thread. I know how to crochet, embroider, tat, knit, bead, braid, felt, weave, spin, dye, paint silks (and have even taken the silk off of a silk cocoon!), quilt, design for printing on fabric, batik, silk screen for t-shirts (or posters), do several varieties of jewelry work, and so on. My father, who was a minister, teacher, and chemist at various points in his career, learned to tat at one point just so he could do handwork while watching TV with mother and me — I think he liked that it used the same tech as making fishing nets as he was an avid fisherman.

    One of my proudest skills is that I am an accomplished milliner — I make hats. This is a lost skill. I am, happily, mad as a hatter (although without the historical excuse of mercury poisoning — the origin of the saying, since mercury was used in making felt). In the late fifties and sixties, changes in chemistry made selling hair dye and salon services more profitable for the fashion industry, and disinformation like that hats make your hair fall out (false — bleaching your hair is far more likely to hurt your follicles) to influence the fashion press to kill millinery.

    Hat makers essentially helped by being slow to adapt new technology. Even today, hatmakers use 18th and 19th century technology. I’ve developed plans to update millinery tech, but I feel like it’s in vain because of the reasons you list.

    Much as I have all these craft skills, I’ve made my living as an engineer most of my life and came into ecommerce marketing from tech not fashion — we just made the Inc5000 and 3rd fastest growing private company in Oregon because I had both! But the market is conditioned to cheap.

    So although we could create amazing new hats that people would love and could afford — and create a “hat salon” that would be like “Build a Bear” for big people where you came in and picked a hat color and design, and picked a band and embellishments and had a hat that was yours made overnight that *was* quality for under $100 — we can’t make it fly, even with speed and quality in a business plan, local labor and so on, because it’s a brick and mortar idea that people think is a high risk.

    People are far more likely to invest in an airy-fairy 18 month Internet scheme.

    I’d love to attract more energy around this business idea. I have the skills but not the start up energy I did as a younger entrepreneur, and hats — look at any musicvideo or the fascinators at the royal wedding — are central to our fashion vocabulary. And rare jewels.

    Yet we can’t even find bad fast cheap ones. We could have good reasonably fast reasonably priced ones, and no one is willing to take the risk because we’ve forgotten the culture.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jelina.haines Jelina Haines

    Thank you for sharing this article, I am a Textile/Fibre Visual Design/Fashion artist. I am having difficulty of promoting my works because buyers always say that my works are expensive and what’s the difference with your work to the other one selling in the main street which are similar. I regularly explained that my artworks are handmade, hand dyed using sustainable products (dyes and fibre). They are unique and well made, it will not shrink, colours will not fade and the design are one-off. Buyers response still expensive. Agreed, quality seems to disappear on the equation.

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